The American Girl catalog showed up in the mailbox a few weeks ago, timed precisely to get to my daughters just as I’m too exhausted thinking about Christmas to sort the mail as carefully as I’d like. That was an afternoon of “Look, she has a pet bunny and it has its own carrots!” and “Matching PJs. Cool.”
Honestly, I’m quite fond of the American Girl dolls. Women’s historical fiction! Learning about dress in different time periods! Promoting girl initiative! Keeping children young for as long as possible! Confession: I saw the catalog, and I put it where they’d be sure to see it. We weren’t ready to jump into the AG world a few years ago, but now that my daughters are 7 and so-close-to-6-she-can-taste-it, bring it, dollfriends.
So I asked them, thinking I was being sneaky, “If you could save up your money, which doll would you buy?” And that’s where it all started.
My plan, you see, was to have Santa bring them the dolls for Christmas. Which he’s going to do, by the way, and with a little luck and some help from a friend we might even find a pair of raspberry-framed glasses for Beth’s doll to wear, because Beth wears raspberry-framed glasses and the website says they’re back-ordered until December 31st. But he’s also going to leave the girls a note saying that they need to pay for the dolls’ extras — matching PJs, bunnies, book series — with their own money. The girls’ plan is a little more complex, but because it’s their idea I’m going with it, and I’m really excited to see what happens.
It turns out they both thought that saving money to buy their own dolls was a great idea. A really great idea. So much so that they went upstairs to get their banks (piggy for Beth, froggy for Sarah) and counted out all of their money on the kitchen table. Beth has almost $40; Sarah has around $25. And then we figured out how much money each girl would need to earn in order to buy her doll. And they realized that it was a pretty serious sum of money, but they were pretty sure they could do it.
I suggested that daddy and I could pay them for doing extra chores. Sarah suggested a lemonade stand. Beth pointed out that no one is going to want to buy lemonade until summer, and countered with a hot chocolate stand. And then the lightbulb went on: “Mommy, can we make hot chocolate mix and sell it on Etsy?” (Background note here: their dad is an accounting professor and I have an Etsy shop, so this isn’t quite the kind of cognitive leap it might appear to be. My mom was a teacher, and my sister and I played school a lot.) So I said, sure, why not?
Sarah drew up a prototype, based on some hot chocolate mix they’d received as a birthday party favor last year (and I do mean drew: on scratch paper with a dull pencil, and with a few misspellings — oh, here, I’ll just take a picture of it for you all):
Beth took over from there. We had to have the right kind of bags, for starters. So she sat next to me and told me what to Google on my laptop. We searched until we found a quantity less than 1,000 and with reasonable shipping. At this point I started a spreadsheet — I wanted to show her that 100 bags for $15.60 comes out to almost 16 cents per bag. “That’s cheap,” she said. “How much does the rest of it cost?” So she picked up Sarah’s drawing and told me what else to put in the spreadsheet. And asked her dad what goes in hot chocolate mix. And drew up a shopping list of everything we’d need, from cocoa and powdered sugar to cornstarch and twist ties. And labels — they had to have labels.
Beth was on a roll at this point. I won’t bore you with the details, but we searched fonts and clip art for about an hour, and she has pretty strong opinions about what she likes, and I’d do something on the computer and she’d say, “Mom, can you curve it a little bit more?” and “Can the mug be pink instead of blue?” and “I want the letters to look like they were made by somebody my age,” and now we have a label. Last night we made a test batch of cocoa mix, packaged the first two cones, and then the girls went to bed and left me to clean up the sugary mess on the kitchen table. And I am totally okay with this. The two little odd packages on the kitchen table aren’t fit to be photographed (apparently we’re going to need some practice), but I’m ridiculously proud of my kids. They even talked about the fact that taking tastes would cut into their profits.
And I’m reminded of a great conversation I had with sister blogger Suzette the first time I met her, about how the things we tell our sons and daughters in Mormon culture are different: boys grow up expecting that they’ll have to support a family, and tend to choose college majors that will prepare them to do so; girls grow up hearing “Get all the education you can” with undertones of “but it can be in something not-very-marketable because sure, you’ll have a job, but you aren’t likely to have a career.” It’s what the two of us had heard, anyway, and we’d both ended up going to graduate school not because it was part of our master life plan but because we realized we needed that extra leg up to compete with all the guys who’d written it into their master plans about the same time they returned from missions.
I want all three of my kids (even Drew, who is just starting to speak in sentences) to grow up with solid economic tools: a good sense for money and its worth, a healthy skepticism toward marketing, an understanding of the real costs of things (including the external costs, and I bring them up often), an inclination to work and to care about quality, and a sense of what it is to take on a project and be successful at it. They’re going to have to know how to shop for things — not just how to buy them, but to really comparison shop. They’ll need to interview for jobs that might not exist yet. They’re pretty good at making chocolate chip cookies on their own (well, after I wrote up the recipe in words they could understand), but this is another thing entirely, to take a product from idea through production and (with any luck, and some kind grandparents) make money on it. I know I’ll end up pretty involved (and sick of scrubbing the kitchen table), but this is their project, their apprenticeship.
The healthy sense of self and ability to make a plan and take action on it, the confidence that if they start on a project and stick to it they’ll succeed — these are the things I want them to learn. Along the way there are going to be a bunch of specific lessons in economics, accounting, marketing, project management, product design, not giving up when you’re bored, and the mind-boggling idea that nickels are bigger than dimes but are actually worth less.
What are the life lessons you want your children to learn? What have been some of the opportunities that allowed your children (or yourself!) to learn them?